The Nation-State Law’s gift to the ninth of Av

Many people have been commenting with bitter irony that feeling sadness and mourning this ninth of Av, the day marking the destruction of both Temples and other disasters in Jewish history, is easier this year, thanks to the Nation-State Law that passed the Knesset last week.

For those for whom summoning a sense of tragedy and disaster is difficult in an Israel and a Jerusalem that are rebuilt and flourishing, or in Diaspora settings in which Jews live secure and comfortable lives, this ninth of Av feels overladen with a sense of grief and despair. The rabbinic teaching about the reason for the destruction of the second Temple – wanton hatred – suddenly is not theoretical. Prophetic denunciations of social depravity, cruelty and injustice leap off the pages of ancient texts into our consciousness as we absorb the news we awoke to one morning last week.

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We learned that in the dead of night, this government had passed a new basic law – Israel’s version of a constitutional amendment – which declares realities that are known and clear to be legally binding: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people; Hebrew is the state’s official language. Arabic merely has “special status. The menorah is a national symbol; public life runs according to the Jewish calendar; the national anthem is what it’s always been – Hatikva.

If the law declares the established, what is the problem?

The law also declares Jewish settlement a priority, without stating anything about the location of such settlement, thus pre-empting a huge national debate about future borders with an ambiguous statement that could be enlisted to authorize policies with tremendous consequences for Israel.

The version of the law that passed is significantly different from earlier versions, which contained provisions that the entire legal establishment, as well as the president of the State of Israel – the latter in a most unusual action – denounced as legalizing Jewish theocracy and apartheid. Those modifications are certainly the good news in all this.

Some have claimed that the law is merely symbolic and has no practical consequences. Clearly, as just stated, practical consequences of the most significant sort can certainly come from it.

But there are other, immediate consequences, and the blindness to them speaks volumes about the state of things for too many in the majority here. To Druze and Bedouin citizens of this country, many of whom serve with courage, distinction – and high casualty and fatality rates – in the IDF; to Muslim and Christian Arab citizens of this country; to Arab members of the Foreign Service, serving Israel abroad with distinction and particular credibility – there was nothing theoretical or trivial in the clear message that they are second-class citizens. 

Thanks to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment in whose thrall Netanyahu lives, the language of the law also limits the call to enhance Jewish solidarity to (patronizing, uninvited and unilateral) Israeli work in the Diaspora. This establishment insisted on removing language that would have set the same goal for Jewish society in Israel, and God forbid, suggested that we have what to learn from, and with, Diaspora Jews. But this, of course, would have required the haredi establishment to commit to a diminution in the fervent sinat hinam – the wanton hatred – that they practice while piously declaiming the verses of Book of Lamentations on this day. About which, see Isaiah 1: 10-28. 

SO, THINK there are no consequences to the alienation of all these segments of Israeli society, and of Diaspora Jewry? To the ongoing poisoning of public discourse in this country? To acts that create citizens and second-class citizens?

Eugene Kontorovich published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal’s Europe Edition on July 20 that sought to diminish the outcry against the new basic law with the argument that it “would not be out of place among the liberal democratic constitutions of Europe, which include similar provisions that have not aroused controversy.” As instances of such liberal democratic constitutions, Kontorovich cites those of Latvia, Slovakia and Castille – two small, insecure nation-states, and one region within a state, all of which lack well-established democratic traditions and national self-confidence. If that describes Israel, woe to us. 

Indeed, this law reeks of national insecurity. For there is no credible doubt about Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. After all, we have a robustly national – as well as democratic and egalitarian – Declaration of Independence, and a Law of Return that make all this very clear, as do many other formal and informal institutions of life, including the established calendar and language.

One of the reasons I always wanted to live in Israel – a dream I realized nearly four years ago as rockets were falling and my son was in Gaza – was that the calendar and I would be in sync: I would not be a minority here. Mail does not come on Shabbat, it comes on Sunday; businesses and schools are closed on Jewish religious holidays and on national ones, like Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars (Yom Hazikaron) and Independence Day. Nation-wide sirens go off and all traffic and business, official radio and TV, stop on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom Hazikaron. The airport, for God’s sake, closes for Yom Kippur, as do official radio and TV stations – and no one contests this. There is a huge menorah planted outside the Knesset. Our currency, our streets, have national figures (virtually all of them male, but that is another issue). There is no doubt about any of this.

What this IS about is raising anxiety, stoking fear and suspicion, and setting groups against groups – which is what demagogues do, and what Netanyahu, Bennett and Shaked, et al., make their political stock in trade – cheap tactics to pander to the worst in us. It does not threaten me in the least to hear announcements on the light rail in Jerusalem in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. There is no reason why Arabic should not be taught seriously in schools here (which is not the case). This is not “only” because 20% of the population is Arabic-speaking, but because we live in the Middle East. It would behoove us to understand the cultures, plural, of those among whom we live and certainly of those who are citizens here and who we wish to be loyal citizens. If nothing else, it would serve our security if we did not alienate and demean 20% of the population.

BUT THERE is the question of derech eretz, too, of decency, which we Jews are supposed to set high in our scheme of values. Ki ger heyittem, our sacred texts remind us again and again. We were a minority in the lands of others for most of our history. We, of all people, should be sensitive to minorities here and treat them with respect and with the consideration we would have wished for ourselves in places in which we were – and in which half of our people still are – minorities. It was excruciating to hear the protest of Druze, Bedouin, and Muslim officers serving in Israel’s Foreign Service about being marginalized and alienated by this gratuitous, insulting, law. It is a shameful recompense for their service and their sacrifice, for their clear love of this country.

There is absolutely no need for this law, except to stoke the electoral base of craven, cowardly politicians, and stir fear, division and hatred in the run-up to the next elections. It’s because they have nothing of substance to offer us in the way of improved life here, or even in the way of security, their big calling card, while the real heroes are our children on the front lines, and their commanders and the higher-ups in the IDF – including Druze and Bedouin. The heroes are “simple,” decent people on all sides and in all communities who do not seek to demean and subordinate others – people very much including Zionists like me who do not need this law to know who we are and why we are here.

The heroes in this sordid tale are the politicians who rallied against the first version of this law and who voted against its second version. People like MK Tzipi Livni, our dyed-in-the wool Likudnik President Reuven Rivlin and MK Benny Begin, who protested the law’s earlier form and who abstained from voting on the revised version. You know, as in Begin: Menachem’s son – Beitar, Herut, Likud – that one. Think he needs instruction about Israel as the Jewish nation-state? Or that Rivlin, or Herut-born Livni, for that matter, do?
And no, I am not taking my cues from – God help us – Slovakia or Latvia, those bastions of enlightened, constitutional democracy. Check their records during the not-long-ago Holocaust. I shudder at the comparison.

Yes, I absolutely expect more from Israel.

My mother, z”l, was the only survivor of her family. The last time she saw them was on the ninth of Av. Every year, she relived that and was ill from grief, both personal and national. My son lost a friend in Gaza on this day four years ago. I am a Jewish historian and I cannot practice my craft without historical empathy. I know the documents of our travails and our triumphs very well. I need no new prompts to feel the reality of national folly and disaster. But, thanks to this government, there is certainly no shortage of these.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history, a core activist in the original Women of the Wall and lead plaintiff in the current Supreme Court case to enforce the rights of Jewish women to full religious expression at the Western Wall.